At first glance, when reading about the life of the Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him), it looks like after migrating to Medina from Makkah, he spent most of his time fighting battles. Some people might think that such actions were done as the Prophet PBUH was weaker in Makkah and that when he went to Medina and had more followers, that was an opportunity to build an army and start fighting. They might also think that as the majority of his companions had little or no military experience beforehand and lived in a very corrupt society, that they were inhuman and /or committed “war crimes”. These claims however are not true and I will try to explain why. I have put links at the bottom of the page to some video series’ that might help to find more information as this is a very broad topic. As always, please feel free to do your own background reading on the topic.
First of all, people should remember that since the beginning of time, there have always been conflicts and wars of some sort with those being bigger and more serious than others. It might sound like a lot of battles when looking through the list of battles such as “The Battle of Badr”, “The Battle of Uhud”, “The Battle of Hunain”, “The Battle of Tabuk” and many more. However, sometimes there are a few wars but they can be very long and be much more serious. Some of the most serious wars in recent times were World War I (lasted for 4 years) and World War II (lasted for 6 years). Both were very serious with millions of deaths and casualties from many countries. However, there were many more serious wars throughout history such as the “War of the Roses” (32 years from 1455-1487) and the “Hundred Year War” (116 years from 1337-1453). There have been even more violent wars in more recent times as well such as the war in Bosnia whereby many Serbs killed many Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995 and in later years, people were convicted of war crimes (you can find more about this genocide from here) and the subsequent life sentence given in 2019 from here). Although not at the same scale, a similar event took place in Kosovo in 1999 during the time of President Milosevic.
From an Islamic perspective, the Prophet PBUH took part in many battles all of which had different reasons. In order to better understand the exact reasons for each battle and why they took place, I would advise the reader to do their own background reading into this as it requires a fair amount of research (still you can get an overview from some of the videos from the links at the bottom of this article). I will mention a few general points here however.
Notice that before taking any form of military action, the Prophet PBUH remained patient and did not fight back for a very long time (many of the companions were persecuted in Makkah and he remained patient for 10 years without taking any military action). Some people might say that this was because there were fewer companions at the time and that they did not have as much power until they migrated to Medina. However, this is not strictly true as there were some very strong and influential companions such as Omar ibn Al Khattab and Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib (the uncle of the Prophet PBUH and great supporter of Islam and Muslims).
In extreme cases, people are permitted to resist. It is mentioned in the Quran:
(أُذِنَ لِلَّذِينَ يُقَاتَلُونَ بِأَنَّهُمْ ظُلِمُوا ۚ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ نَصْرِهِمْ لَقَدِيرٌ (39
(39) Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. (Surah Al Hajj: 39)
As much as possible, the Prophet PBUH tried to negotiate things peacefully rather than fighting, even if that meant sometimes letting the enemy have the “upper hand”. An example of this was the “Treaty of Hudaibiya” (you can find out more from here). Among other things, the Prophet PBUH had a dream that he was visiting Makkah with his companions but made the treaty, which meant that he had to return without visiting the Holy Mosque. The companions were very upset and when he asked them to return, they did not listen to him so Umm Salama (one of the wives of the Prophet PBUH) suggested that he should shave his head first and leave, which is what he did and then finally others did the same. There were many such terms that seemed to favour the non-Muslims at the time. Likewise, before going on any battle to a foreign land, the Prophet PBUH sent out letters to the leaders inviting them to Islam. Evidence of this can still be seen, such as with the letter that the Prophet PBUH sent to Muqawqas, the leader of Egypt at the time. The original letter can still be seen at the Islamic Museum at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Prophet PBUH was by no means trying to simply seek fame and fortune. This can be seen even from a secular /archaeological point of view as well. For example, much of the Middle Eastern region now covered by Saudi Arabia did not really have much of a history as they mostly consisted to warring tribes and they did not build any major structures or make advances in science and technology, unlike their neighbouring countries such as in the region of Iraq or Iran. Despite this, after the death of the Prophet PBUH, the Muslims were united and managed to defeat both the Romans and the Persians, two of the strongest empires in the world. However, they did not simply loot the people and /or steal their resources. This can be seen as people have found many personal belongings of the Prophet PBUH and his companions, such as the bowl that he ate from, the clothes that his companions wore and the swords that they had. Many of these items can still be seen at the Islamic Museum at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. If the Prophet PBUH simply wanted fame and fortune, his personal belongings would have been much more extravagant. Likewise, he did not leave any monarchy afterwards. In fact, none of his children survived after his death except for his daughter, Fatima, may Allah be pleased with her. Compare this to how the British for example looted India and used the money that they gained to fund the Industrial revolution and establish their textile industry, leaving India to become a much poorer country (you can watch a video by an Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, explaining this in more detail at Oxford University in the UK from here)
When it came to fighting however, the Prophet PBUH did in fact set some ground rules, as he mentioned: “O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well!
Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone. (Aboul-Enein, H. Yousuf and Zuhur, Sherifa, Islamic Rulings on Warfare, p. 22, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Diane Publishing Co., Darby PA, ISBN 1-4289-1039-5)
It was narrated from ‘Ikrimah that ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) burned some people. News of that reached Ibn ‘Abbaas and he said: If it were me, I would not have burned them, because the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “Do not punish with the punishment of Allah.” And I would have executed them as the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever changes his religion, then execute him.” (Narrated by al-Bukhari 3017).
In some ways, this is also a way of reducing the casualties and reduce the amount of damage to people, wildlife and the environment. This is in complete contrast to what often happens in wars today such as with nuclear bombs being dropped. Two very famous examples include the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II. Some of the pictures of the casualties are quite horrific. Likewise, nuclear bombs were dropped on Iraq, which not only killed many people but also led to many children being born with birth defects. A famous example of this was at the “Frankenstein Hospital” in Iraq (you can see the pictures yourself if you want but be aware that some of the images are quite disturbing).
When there is a war, there are also hostages and POWs (Prisoners of War). So how did the Prophet PBUH deal with such people? An example can be seen with the case of Thumama ibn Uthal, who was the head of a tribe in Yamama (now in the South of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). He was kept inside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and was released after about 3 days –he then converted to Islam. Compare that to how many POWs and hostages are treated nowadays. In recent times for example, there have been many crimes such as at Guantanamo Bay where many innocent people were captured and tortured without trial. You can read about a detainee after his release from here. Likewise, during the Iraq War in 2003 many crimes were committed against ordinary Iraqi Civilians at Abu Gharaib Prison as they were stripped, beaten, tortured, mocked and much more. This is despite the crimes being committed by many American soldiers who were sent to liberate the people and had undergone extensive military training by one of the most (if not the most) advanced military in the world. You can find out more about this from this documentary, The Ghosts of Abu Gharaib from here.
War is very serious but as explained earlier, the Prophet PBUH showed humility and forbade the mutilation of dead bodies. He also advised people to respect the dead as he said: “Breaking the bone of one who is dead is like breaking it when he is alive.” Narrated by Abu Dawood (3207) and Ibn Maajah (1616) from the hadeeth of ‘Aa’ishah; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh Abi Dawood. In complete contrast to this, during the 1960s, the French committed various atrocities such as chopping off the heads of many Moroccan people, which they displayed on a wall and took a photo of. The people at the time were proud of their actions and used this photo as a postage stamp for sending mail around the world.
There were many more disturbing photos taken of French atrocities committed in Algeria, such as mutilating dead bodies, soldiers proudly playing with the heads of people that had been cut off, soldiers happily posing with women after presumably raping them and more. Such incidents still took place in more recent time such as during the Iraq War in 2003 whereby American soldiers happily posed and took photos with the dead bodies of Iraqi Civilians who had been killed at Abu Gharaib Prison. Likewise, in Afghanistan, soldiers were found urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan. You can find out more from here.
So how did the Prophet PBUH deal with his companions during war? Firstly, he clearly valued quality over quantity in terms of people who actually joined him in battle. It is mentioned in the Quran:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ حَرِّضِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ عَلَى الْقِتَالِ ۚ إِن يَكُن مِّنكُمْ عِشْرُونَ صَابِرُونَ يَغْلِبُوا مِائَتَيْنِ ۚ وَإِن يَكُن مِّنكُم مِّائَةٌ يَغْلِبُوا أَلْفًا مِّنَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَفْقَهُونَ (65)
(65) O Prophet, urge the believers to battle. If there are among you twenty [who are] steadfast, they will overcome two hundred. And if there are among you one hundred [who are] steadfast, they will overcome a thousand of those who have disbelieved because they are a people who do not understand.
لَقَدْ نَصَرَكُمُ اللَّهُ فِي مَوَاطِنَ كَثِيرَةٍ ۙ وَيَوْمَ حُنَيْنٍ ۙ إِذْ أَعْجَبَتْكُمْ كَثْرَتُكُمْ فَلَمْ تُغْنِ عَنكُمْ شَيْئًا وَضَاقَتْ عَلَيْكُمُ الْأَرْضُ بِمَا رَحُبَتْ ثُمَّ وَلَّيْتُم مُّدْبِرِينَ (25)
(25) Allah has already given you victory in many regions and [even] on the day of Hunayn, when your great number pleased you, but it did not avail you at all, and the earth was confining for you with its vastness; then you turned back, fleeing.
The Prophet PBUH took the best of his companions to battle, leading the battles himself. He did not simply force people to join the battles and /or do all sorts of things that they did not want to do. The Prophet PBUH treated his companions well and did not mock them and /or force them to participate against their will. An interesting example of this was Hassan ibn Thabit who was noble companion of the Prophet PBUH and one of the greatest poets of the time. Despite this, he could not fight and did not take part in any battle. In fact, during the Battle of the Trench, women, children and elder men who could not fight stayed behind in a building and he was among them. In fact, when it was found that there was a spy watching them and he was asked to do something, he was unable to so Safiya, the aunt of the Prophet PBUH had to go and deal with the spy instead. Despite this, nobody mocked him and /or accused him of being any less of a man or of being a “coward”.
The Prophet PBUH also valued the lives of his companions and also family values. For example, Othman ibn Affan, a noble companion of the Prophet PBUH and the third Caliph of Islam, did not take part in the Battle of Badr as he was given specific orders to look after his wife who was also the daughter of the Prophet PBUH. Also, as serious as any battles were, the Prophet PBUH did not want children to be involved in the fighting. An example was during the Battle of the Trench. The only one who stood up to fight was Ali ibn Abu Talib, a noble companion of the Prophet PBUH and the fourth Caliph. At the time, he was very young, so the Prophet PBUH told him to sit down and asked again. After asking 3 times and seeing that nobody stood up, he allowed him to fight. This was only done as a last resort.
Objectives and instructions were made clear to everyone such as in the Battle of Uhud. The Prophet PBUH advised his companions who were on an arch not to come down until he tells them to (the “Archer’s Hill” can still be seen today in Medina). However, they did not listen to him and came down early. The Prophet PBUH nearly got killed because of this mistake but still remained patient and did not give up on his companions. That does not mean however that the Prophet PBUH never took anything seriously. As an example, during the Battle of Tabuk, 3 companions did not take part. Later, they confessed and one of them was given a penalty by being completely “boycotted” by everyone around him. It is mentioned in the Quran:
وَعَلَى الثَّلَاثَةِ الَّذِينَ خُلِّفُوا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا ضَاقَتْ عَلَيْهِمُ الْأَرْضُ بِمَا رَحُبَتْ وَضَاقَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ أَنفُسُهُمْ وَظَنُّوا أَن لَّا مَلْجَأَ مِنَ اللَّهِ إِلَّا إِلَيْهِ ثُمَّ تَابَ عَلَيْهِمْ لِيَتُوبُوا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ (118)
(118) And [He also forgave] the three who were left behind [and regretted their error] to the point that the earth closed in on them in spite of its vastness and their souls confined them and they were certain that there is no refuge from Allah except in Him. Then He turned to them so they could repent. Indeed, Allah is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful. (Surah Al Taubah: 118)
This is a very long narration, but you can read it from here. Notice how much trust the Prophet PBUH built up with his companions. The companion who did not participate could have easily lied and not been given any penalty but he still preferred to do this and be honest.
During the Battle of the Trench, one of his companions, Salman Al Farisi (he was from “Faris”, which is now Persia /Iran) suggested to the Prophet PBUH to make a ditch. This act in itself explains a lot about the Prophet PBUH and how he dealt with matters during battles. Notice how approachable the Prophet PBUH was. Not only did he listen to his companions but he could also be approached and spoken to directly rather than always needing the companions to speak to a “superior” first (there were many more senior companions at the time). Also, the Prophet PBUH did not want companions who would blindly follow orders and /or simply force them to do other tasks.
The Prophet PBUH also gave authority to the right people. An example of this was with Khalid ibn Al Walid, who was the greatest general in Islamic history and was also the reason why the Muslims lost the Battle of Uhud (he was not Muslim at the time). Even as a Muslim, he was never famous for his acts of worship but the Prophet PBUH recognized his military ability so gave him the authority to plan and lead battles.
Despite what was mentioned above, some people still hold the view that certain companions of the Prophet PBUH unlawfully took leadership and did not treat the people of Persia well. Most notably, there are people who do not like Omar ibn Al Khattab, a noble companion of the Prophet PBUH and the second Caliph of Islam and have even built a Shrine in Iran dedicated to Abu Lulu /Fairuz Nahavandi, a Persian fire worshiper who killed him, and they hold celebrations every year to celebrate his death.
There is ample evidence to disprove such claims. This is one of them. The Messenger of Allah PBUH said: “Abu Bakr is in Paradise, ‘Umar is in Paradise, ‘Uthman is in Paradise, ‘Ali is in Paradise, Talhah is in Paradise, Az-Zubair is in Paradise, ‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Awf is in Paradise, Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas is in Paradise, Sa’eed is in Paradise, and Abu ‘Ubaidah bin Al-Jarrah is in Paradise.” (Al Tirmithi 3747). Also, the Prophet PBUH ascended the mountain of Uhud and he was accompanied by Abu Bakr, `Umar and `Uthman. The mountain shook beneath them. The Prophet PBUH hit it with his foot and said, “O Uhud ! Be firm, for on you there is none but a Prophet, a Siddiq and a martyr (i.e. and two martyrs). “Siddiq” was a name given to Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. One of the martyrs then was Omar ibn Al Khattab, who was also on the mountain. (Al Bukhari 3686)
Those who have studied his life, would see things differently. For example, Michael Hart, an American Historian, published his book “The 100: a ranking of the 100 most influential people in history” and ranked the Prophet Mohammed PBUH in the top position. In addition to this, he ranked Omar ibn Al Khattab in the 8th position. Also, if one looks at history, they will find that Persians have played an important role in Islamic history especially during the Abbasid Era (roughly the mid-8th Century to the 13th Century). Some examples include Abu Bakr Al Razi (one of the greatest Muslim doctor), Omar Al Khayyam (a great mathematician and poet), Imam Abu Hanifa (one of the greatest Muslim scholars and one of the “Four Imams”), Imam Al Tabbarri (one of the greatest classical Islamic scholars) and many more. In addition to this, many ancient monuments, heritage and even religion from pre Islamic times still exist. For example, much of the ancient heritage at Persepolis (the ancient Persian capital) still exists today; the tomb of Cyrus the Great (one of the greatest Persian leaders) also exists and the ancient Zoroastrian /Parsi religion still exists with many followers, not only in Iran but in other places such as in India. If Omar ibn Al Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, was really as evil as people believe him to be, would such things have survived and so many Persians hold such a high status? Even from a secular point of view, why would people hold annual celebrations to celebrate somebody’s death?
I have no doubt that not all Muslims are good and /or practice the religion the way it should be practiced and therefore might have committed some forms of war crimes in later generations. It is interesting however to see that even in later years, there were Muslim leaders who went into battle and still showed humility when fighting. An example of that was when Muslims went to Spain. At the time, the land was under the control of the Vandals and the Jews living there at the time asked the Muslim leaders in North Africa to assist them and to rule over them. In fact, there is a very famous hall in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, where there is a statue of 12 lions. When I visited the place, the Spanish tour guide who was not Muslim explained that the statue was given as a gift to the Muslims by the Jews in the community at the time as they were pleased with the way that the Muslims treated them. However, perhaps not everyone has studied this part of history. As I mentioned earlier, this is a very broad topic but here are some links for further reading:
The Sealed Nectar (bestselling biography of the Prophet PBUH)
Seerah –Biography of the Prophet PBUH series (Treaty of Hudaibiya): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEbDPM93s4s (other videos about the Prophet PBUH including battles can also be seen from the same series such as from here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y22vp9pp8JE&list=PLC89682017B43845D)
Lives of the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet PBUH): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yASuD-M-pFU&list=PLYOnU0Yk8VGYcnIPK6fo1Bke7k_geYCfA
An Islamic History of Europe
Cities of Light (The Rise and Fall of Islam in Spain)